Originally published in Austin Monthly, April 2015 Issue
AT FIXE, YOU’LL FIND DELIGHTFUL DOWN-HOME CUISINE SERVED WITH A SIDE OF HOSPITALITY
If you walked into a party full of folks from around the country, I’d bet money that you could spot the Southerner right off. That’s the one: gracious, open and warm, with an easy, cheeky wit that inspires camaraderie. Impeccably mannered but nowhere near stuffy. And it’s all just effortless.
Such charms are immediately apparent at Fixe, the new (as of Christmas Eve) fine-dining project by co-owners and Eddie V’s alums Chef James Robert and director of operations Keith House. The restaurant’s concept is the “pleasures of the Sunday supper,” a meal devoted to celebrating togetherness over damned fine food. And that’s what you get. At Fixe, Southern cuisine isn’t a trendy gimmick, but a passion. It’s clear in everything from the front house staff’s genuine hospitality to the kitchen’s playful approach, backed by progressive technique and serious skill.
You get the feel of it as soon as you step into the space, located in the otherwise staid IBC Bank building downtown. Greetings are warm and amiable, but still respectful, spot on for the Southern sensibility. Rocking chairs in the entry evoke laid-back evenings on the porch, as does the large interior screened-in area that divides the dining room into intimate sections. Three side rooms, much more formal, accommodate large and private parties. With high-backed chairs and elegant appointments, the spaces probably look a lot like the dining room where your great aunt served holiday dinners. From the china plates that adorn the walls to the watercolor of weathered plaster reminiscent of ancient French Quarter buildings, Fixe’s decor manages to walk the line between relaxed and refined without kitsch, or more importantly, irony.
You’ll find echoes of this high-low balance on the menu, too. Biscuits, deviled eggs and fried chicken share space with grander dishes, such as a veal brisket, sous vide for 48 hours to render it meltingly tender, or the red snapper “blackened” with a meringue of ash and squid ink, served over rock shrimp, chunks of bone marrow and squash in a light hot-and-sour broth.
No matter where a dish falls on the familiar-to-fancy spectrum, each incorporates an element of surprise. It could be an innovative preparation, such as the lemon cake, “baked” in the freezer overnight until puffed with air, or an unexpected ingredient. Sure, you get housemade preserves with those big, buttery biscuits, but they also come with n’duja, a spicy, spreadable sausage of Calabrian provenance. Pickled cabbage accompanies the deviled eggs, also topped with smoked trout roe and shaved ham. And the pescavore dish on the grits menu features Texas Gulf shrimp and freeze-dried corn atop rough-cut heirloom grits, accompanied by tangy shrimp butter, silky as lemon curd, and a shaving of briny bottarga, the salted and cured roe of tuna or grey mullet.
Of the 14 dishes I tried over two dinners, these were the standouts: The toasty, creamy and savory grains—a small chilled bowl of pureed uni, or sea urchin, layered atop gelled mushrooms and topped with 12 different seeds and grains that had been cooked, toasted or puffed; the veal brisket, accompanied by a deconstructed sweet potato casserole, topped with foie gras and a housemade marshmallow topped with Espelette, a fruity and mildly spicy French pepper; the pescavore grits (that shrimp butter!); and the red beans and rice dessert, appended with the simple command, “Trust us!” in place of a description.
We’re glad we did. The familiar ingredient pair is transformed into something completely unexpected. The beans show up as a crispy, hush puppy–like fritter, lightly salted on the outside, while the rice is translated as puffed-rice ice cream. The dessert also comes with a side of white chocolate mousse. It hit all the right buttons for this diner: salty and sweet (but not overly so), just rich enough, with a pleasing textural contrast.
I also loved the legit housemade boudin (you can take the girl out of Louisiana…), rich with the taste of liver and spicy enough to warm your innards like a belt of bourbon. But I shouldn’t have expected anything less from a chef raised in Louisiana’s Acadian country. The beef tartare comes with several oysters, crispy on the outside and creamy as egg yolk inside, which my husband declared the best he’s ever tasted.
That’s not to say everything I tried was roundly superb. The fried chicken, topped with a compulsive spicy honey, had too high a fry-to-chicken ratio for my taste. And the portion consists only of boneless thighs. Yes, the meat’s exceedingly tender, but if I’m going to eat fried chicken, I like it to come on a bone. I enjoyed the blackened snapper preparation, but found its light flavor overpowered by the rich, meaty bone marrow. And I wanted to love the lemon cake, made as light and fluffy as a cloud for stuffed diners who still want a bite of something sweet. But it was too ethereal, disappearing just as soon as I bit into it, promising the taste of lemon but never quite delivering it. What a tease!
Of course, these are but quibbles in light of the excellence of Fixe’s whole operation. To love something doesn’t require perfection—something you probably learned at those Sunday family suppers.